Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Philip Matyszak, Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2009. Pp. xvi, 192. ISBN 9781844159680. £19.99.

Reviewed by Dylan Bloy, Tulane University (

Version at BMCR home site

The story of the Roman conquest of Macedonia and Greece is a worthy one, just as deserving of a book length explication as it was in Polybius' day. This book is a laudable attempt to meet this goal, to explain to a general reader "how Rome came to conquer Greece and Macedon, and exactly what happened in the century that this conquest took" (pg. xvi). There is a real need for a monograph like this covering the Roman conquest of Greece, an era of unprecedented interaction all too often considered marginal to the floruit of both Greek and Roman history. A history written for a general audience should, in my view, not only have an interesting subject, but be written in a lively style eschewing pedantry while presenting both established facts and continuing controversies. Matyszak succeeds in establishing a level of historical detail appropriate for his narrative. Some of his writing, particularly about military tactics and political strategy, is admirably succinct without being reductive. Let the reader be warned, however, that the book contains not only minor errors, especially in proper nouns, but it also in some cases presents generalizations, questionable assertions, and even discredited ideas as fact. I will list some examples of both the minor errors and the more problematic statements, not to criticize the author, but to allow the reader to judge whether they undermine the book's purpose as a general history.

Throughout the work, place names are misspelled, misidentified, or confused with similar sounding names. These include Thessalonians where he means Thessalians (pg. 6), Neopolis for Neapolis (pg. 17), Messenia (the regional name) where he means Messene (the polis, pg. 28), Ambracus for Ambracia (pg. 29), and Dymale for Dyme (pg. 83--confused with Illyrian Dimale?). He identifies the Aetolian federal sanctuary at Thermon as "Thermus, the principal city of the Aetolian confederacy" (pg. 30), the regions of Dolopia and Thessaliotis as "cities" (pg. 101, cf. pg. 116), and Tempe as "a generic name for all the passes to Thessaly" (pg. 96). Names suffer equally, including Sacerdilaidas for Scerdilaidas (pg. 24), Amelius for Aemilius (pg. 25), Antigonos Dosun [sic] (pg. 25), King Heiro [sic] of Syracuse (pg. 36), Charpous of Epirus for Charops (pg. 80), and Marcus Philippus for Q. Marcius Philippus (pg. 143). All these are careless errors that, while distracting, do not necessarily compromise the overall work.

Unfortunately, there are also statements that might well be queried by a knowledgeable reader. Matyszak writes that in 203/202 Philip V "had concluded a full but secret agreement with Antiochus, by which the two kings appear to have agreed to divide Egypt's overseas possessions between them." The very existence of this agreement remains controversial, and Matyszak's notice fails to mention that the source for it (Pol. 15.20) speaks not of "Egypt's overseas possessions" but of the entirety of the child Ptolemy's kingdom, a notion no modern historian is willing to seriously entertain. One of the causes he cites for the Second Macedonian War is more problematic still. Noting the manpower shortage in Rome caused by the war with Carthage, Matyszak asserts that while it "is highly unlikely that Rome contemplated war with Macedon in terms of the most massive slave raid in history, yet this was the terrible consequence for Greece, and an underlying cause of the war," (pg. 59) later explaining that "Italy needed manpower to work its fields" (pg. 60). This confuses the issue in two ways. Firstly, the manpower of landowning citizens that served in the army could not be made up with slaves—these are two completely different kinds of manpower. Secondly, he confuses results with motives; the latifundia that employed large numbers of slave workers were a development of the second century wave of mass enslavements in the Eastern Mediterranean, but did not yet exist at the outbreak of the war in 200 B.C. Matyszak contends that "[g]enerally, once established in the field, the commander would then have his authority as a general prolonged by the Senate in the form of a proconsulship, and in this position he would wage war for the next year, and if successful, perhaps even longer" (pg. 77). At the time he is discussing, Flamininus' consulship in 198 B.C., prorogation of command was by no means a common solution, especially for consular commands. Much more common was what had happened in the first two years of this war—a newly elected consul was sent from Rome to replace the outgoing magistrate. Matyszak also asserts that after captured Ambracia was despoiled of its statues by M. Fulvius Nobilior, "Nobilior's enemies in the Roman Senate made him give it all back" (pg. 119). Whence, then, the 785 bronze and 230 marble statues he displayed in his triumph (Liv. 39.5)? Equally problematic is the claim that "Scipio Africanus was exiled" (pg. 119) when he retired to his country villa amid scandal in the last years of his life. Matyszak is unaccountably skeptical about King Perseus' role in an assassination attempt on King Eumenes II at Delphi in the lead up to Third Macedonian War, arguing that "[o]thers had a motive for wanting Eumenes dead" (pg. 127), despite ancient sources attributing the crime to Perseus' henchman Evander. In the final stage of the war when Perseus fled to Samothrace (not Amphipolis, as Matyszak writes on pg. 155), he ended up eliminating Evander lest he reveal the king's role in the attack (Liv. 45.5). Indeed throughout his Chapter 7, Matyszak seems to empathize strongly with Perseus' predicament, e.g. "nothing that Perseus could do short of outright surrender would stop war from happening" (pg. 128). He speaks of the impoverishment of Athens during the same war and how subsequently "Athens took control of Delos" (pg. 161) without connecting the two, though Delos is usually understood as a Roman reward for Athenian loyalty in the war. He asserts that it was also after Pydna that "Romans started referring to the Greeks as Graeculi" (pg. 162). I am uncertain of his evidence for this notion, since it is in Cicero that we find the first regular use of this term, moreover not always applied to Greeks. Matyszak also repeats the canard, long exposed as a modern invention, that the Roman punctuated the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC by sowing salt in the fields (pg. 175).1

These last two unsupported statements are typical of a more general problem the book has with citation. Matyszak includes endnotes, but the endnotes are few and information taken from ancient sources does not always receive citation, even if directly quoted. This makes it difficult to tell whether a particular anecdote springs from the relatively trustworthy Polybius or the often suspect Plutarch, if it indeed has a textual source. The citation of secondary sources appropriately focuses on scholarship in English, though I thought a further two seminal articles might have been reflected both in the bibliography and the historical narrative.2

Finally there is the matter of coverage. As announced by his title, Matyszak only considers Roman expansion in mainland Greece, leaving out the story of what happens when Antiochus the Great returned to Asia after his defeat at Thermopylae. I suppose it must be that this material was already reserved for the same publisher's forthcoming Roman Conquests: Asia Minor, Syria, and Armenia, but I think it makes more chronological sense and better reflects its source material as a part of this book.

This book will not supplant the relevant sections of the Cambridge Ancient History3 as the best introduction for the non-specialist to Roman intervention in Hellenistic Greece. It does have advantages of format and cost, and boasts a consistently strong narrative voice. Ultimately it is up to the reader to decide if one's interest is met by a book that is entertaining and balances reporting and analysis well, but contains infelicities of the sort sampled above.


1.   R. T. Ridley, "To be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage" Classical Philology 81.2 (1986) 140-146.
2.   E. Badian, "Rome and Antiochus the Great: A Study in Cold War" Classical Philology 54 (1959) 81-99 and E. Gruen, "Greek Πίστις and Roman Fides" Athenaeum 60 (1982) 50-68.
3.   The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume VIII: Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 B.C., Second edition (Cambridge 1989).

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